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An Interview with Benjamin Busch

(Reprinted from O-Dark-Thirty/The Review Volume 5, No. 4—Summer 2017.)

Benjamin Busch is an award-winning writer, actor, photographer, film director, former United States Marine Corps officer who served two tours of combat duty in Iraq, and the author of Dust to Dust: A Memoir (Ecco, 2013).

He played Officer Anthony Colicchio on the HBO series The Wire, his writing has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Harper’s, and he has been a guest commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered. A native of New York, he now lives on a farm in Michigan with his wife and two daughters. Nonfiction Editor Dario DiBattista, also a former Marine, spoke with Busch for O-Dark-Thirty.

O-Dark-Thirty: I know this is painfully vague, but what does “identity” mean to you? How does it relate directly to writing and acting?

Benjamin Busch: There are both internal senses and external applications of identity. The latter is how we relate to other people, a tribal identity, and we are either born into it, adopt it, feel we’ve earned membership in it, or had it forced on us. We add our professions and religions, our nations and race, our sex and sexuality. I can always tell when an identity hasn’t been given much thought, lives on the surface, can’t defend itself. Writers and actors make decisions about who their characters are and how much their identity is influential. They have to find ways inside, past civilization’s dense fabric of labels, to what a character can’t deny under scrutiny.

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The Consent of the Governed?

by Delbert R. Gardner

Americans are so steeped in the principle of democracy that they will seldom forget it even as members of the armed forces in wartime.  I saw a serio-comic demonstration of this fact during World War II when I was an aircraft armament specialist with an Eighth Air Force bomber squadron.

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Hold All Things in Heart Forever True

by Chuck Priestley

Hold all things in heart forever true,
Love should never taste the draught of woe;
Mothers, do not mourn a son before his due.

Soldier, do you weep for those you slew?
Remember, they had mothers, too, so
Hold all things in heart forever true.

Door Gunner, hang tough and protect the crew
Over the paddies that rice and Viet Cong grow,
Mothers, do not mourn a son before his due.

House Mouse, as you shine his boots and shoes
Do you fear what the future may show?
Hold all things in heart forever true.

Letters to the home front contain no clues,
Five Hueys shot down in combat by the foe,
Mothers, do not mourn a son before his due.

Caskets draped in red, white, and blue,
Taps sounds out mournfully slow.
Hold all things forever true.
Mothers, do not mourn a son before his due.

John Charles (Chuck) Priestley II (YNCS, USN Ret.) was born and resides in South Charleston, West Virginia where he is an avid reader, Oriental food aficionado, oenophile, gardener, and handyman constantly renovating his “money pit” residence. He began writing poetry as off-duty entertainment while stationed on Hawaii. He has experimented in various forms of both rhymed and prose poetry, drawn from 24 years experience in the U.S. Navy and associated travels. He is published in Eastlit and Pennsylvania Review. Nature, Asian culture, and human relationships are recurring themes for his poetry. He holds a Master of Arts in English from Marshall University.

The Spider

by Jim Barrett

I had an opportunity today. I sat in my chair—trying to work out a plot problem when I pushed away from my howling computer (yeah—it howls, even snarls, when I can’t figure shit out) and leaned back in my chair. I looked skyward, really, ceilingward (if that’s a word) at the light above my head. It was then that I noticed a life and death struggle. There was a spider caught in the bowl of the light. I saw it clearly—a black eight-legged outline against the forty watt bulb that illuminated it. I was transfixed.

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The Letters

by Alicia DeFonzo

“You know, your grandmother only wrote me once during the war?” he says, sipping his scotch, staring out at the Chesapeake Bay which he can no longer see. I look at him with her eyes. It was the first I heard of it. He wouldn’t lie to me, but I wonder how this could be true.

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Know Thy Enemy

by Jonathan Tennis

Throughout the ages,
We have labeled them
Enemy
To make us feel they are different
To make us feel they are not the same
To make us feel nothing about them
To make us feel nothing about their cause
But they are the same
They are mothers and fathers
Brothers and sisters
Sons and daughters
Wives and husbands
We are the same
But they have to die
Because we labeled them enemy.
Sun Tzu said
Know thy enemy
Know thyself.
I don’t know how to tell the difference.
Jonathan Tennis served an enlistment in the United States Army, with a deployment to Iraq in support of OIF. He is a graduate of Eckerd College (BA) and Norwich University (MSIA), resides in Tampa, Florida where he enjoys writing, reading, year-round sunshine, traveling, and biking. 

Cycle of Violence

by Seabass

June 2004

Husaybah, al-Anbar Province, Iraq

Four of my Marine Force Recon teammates lay spread-eagle in deep sleep on the dusty concrete floor beside me.  As they recovered from physical and emotional exhaustion, Brian and I stood watch, scanning the city from the blasted-out windows of the building’s top floor.  Before dawn, our team had clandestinely occupied the abandoned Saddam-era Iraqi government office, known to us as the “Crack House.”  Miraculously, we had remained unseen from the vigilant civilians and combatants by low-crawling in through a weed- and shit-filled ditch which ran next to our new hide site.  Like hunters eager to kill a trophy buck, we searched the alleyways below with high-powered optics, hoping to catch our prey off-guard as the sun rose.

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Trash Bag Conversion

by Chad Pettit

On a Sunday afternoon drive with my family
I stop the car in the middle of the road.
My wife panics, asks what’s the matter?
On the side of the road sits a trash bag.
It’s just plastic, but I can smell smoke
and hear the squelch of a radio.

“Report.”

The other drivers pass me, heads shaking.
I sit paralyzed, white-knuckling the steering wheel,
foot trembling on the brake pedal.
My wife tells me to breathe, but I’m
hypnotized by a wire that isn’t there.
My boots heel-to-toe step on mortar-shelled roads.

The radio on my shoulder demands a report.

Do I hear the choppers hovering? Hovering overhead? No.
No support this mission.
I spot mud huts and trash pile homes on the road
to the landfill city as I
figure-eight–scan freshly paved
American roads.

“Sitrep, over.”

My wife says it’s a trash bag, tells me to drive.
My heart beats to the rhythm of incoming,
and the boom of outgoing
steals my breath.
I see starving men with zip-tie bound wrists,
and sandbags covering their heads on highways of rubble.

“All clear, nothing to report, over.”

I look for the rifle they took away,
replaced with a gear shift.
I push my sunglasses up my sweating face,
take my wife’s hand, waiting in my lap
and drive past the trash bag slowly
without blinking.

Chad Pettit served in the Army Infantry for ten years, including two combat tours to Iraq. He teaches high school English and has a B.A. in English from Texas A&M University-Central Texas. He lives with his wife and four children in Copperas Cove, TX. His poems have appeared in The Lookout and The Anuran.

Nowhereville

by J. Scott Price

There’s this valley someplace
that looked like
all the rest
though none of us knew
it contained our death.

A simple shithole of a spot
with no name on a map–no
grand historical battle space.
Just
a trap.

So there’ll be no consolation,
no transferred dignity
for our beloveds
when reverent whispers ask,

Where did they serve, how did they die?

Thankfully, though, no unmarked graves for us.
Our buddies brought our bodies back.

But I’ve met others
since that day I named the Paradox of Pain
without that seemingly simple,
reassuring
luxury.

Their remains
remain where they fell
and turned to dust
in some other Nowhereville.

J. Scott Price served as an infantryman in the Virginia Army National Guard from 1986 until 2011, and deployed for both OIF and OEF. This poem gestated from events in Afghanistan and emerged seven years after his return.

Acting at War

by Travis Klempan

Red Merrill chewed the gum not on account of its breath-freshening capabilities, nor because he had food stuck in his teeth. (Protein shakes left behind a filmy grit but he washed this away with overchlorinated Iraqi water.) He chewed with no intention of blowing bubbles—it weren’t that kind of gum either—but just because it gave him something to do, and he’d grown sick of dipping tobacco.

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